Obesity in Advertising : Is it Helping in the Fight Against Obesity?

https://apis.google.com/js/plusone.js On October 4, USA Today published an article highlighting television ads from US companies putting obese people in the spotlight. Subway, Nike and Blue Cross are among the companies featuring overweight people in their recent advertisements. Two-thirds of adults in America are overweight or obese.  The advertisements are intended to change consumers’ behaviors.  Are they really working?

The Healthy Moms Magazine asked Eliza Kingsford, licensed psychotherapist, weight management and body image Director of Clinical Services at Wellspring, which hosts a number of weight loss facilities around the country that help kids, adults and families learn a healthier way of living  with behavioral change to share her expertise and opinion on these recent advertisements.  

Why do you think advertisers are putting obese people “under the spotlight” in their ad campaigns?

Eliza : I think with the growing awareness of the obesity epidemic, advertisers are using obese people in the spotlight for shock value. I don’t feel like most advertisers are particularly concerned for their subjects, and will therefore use methods such as shaming or shock to get the attention of their intended audience. They seem to be operating under the assumption that shame and shock value will get people to pay more attention to what they are selling. And while this may be true, people will pay attention to those ads, ones that criticize, blame, ridicule and dehumanize the obese population, it will not do anything to change the behavior of people struggling with obesity. Recently, one city had an ad portraying two persons suffering from obesity as “beached whales”. The ad garnered a lot of attention, albeit mostly negative, but nevertheless people noticed it. Later the ad was taken down and replaced with something slightly less offensive. However, I can’t help but wonder if the advertisers felt like the original ad did its job by eliciting such a response. I have to question if advertisers care about the impact or effect of their ads, and not just whether or not people see them. What we know is that calling a person who is obese a “beached whale” does not suddenly make them look at themselves differently and change their behavior. The vast majority of people struggling with obesity know they are obese, they don’t need or want to see an ad shaming them for their struggles.

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Do you think this will help more people become aware of the obesity epidemic in the US and make lifestyle changes or do you think it will just make obesity a bigger problem?

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Eliza: I am in favor of more people becoming aware of just how dangerous this epidemic of obesity has become and the drastic measures it will take to reverse the trajectory of obesity. However, studies have shown that ads shaming, ridiculing and dehumanizing people suffering from obesity do not have a positive effect on their behavior. In fact, the opposite can be true. In one study of randomly assigned Americans, people found these advertising messages confusing, stigmatizing, inappropriate, vague and pointless (Puhl, Peterson, Luedicke, 2012 Int J Obesity). Do we need to get the message out? Yes. However, we also need these messages to be effective. If they are not effective we are just contributing to the problem of weight bias and crippling an obese community who might be looking for help. 

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Ads that include only parts of a person’s body, such as just their backside or only their stomach are dehumanizing. We have seen these ads before, many times with women, but now they are being used with the obese population. Ads like these remove dignity and humanization from a person and portray them as only parts of a whole. Often, ads targeting obesity will portray the overweight person according to current stigmas (overeating, being “lazy”, wearing clothes that are too tight and unbecoming). These types of ads are shaming and do not have effective outcomes. I am not against ads using more overweight people in them, after all with two thirds of our current population of adults being overweight or obese this is a better representation of what our country really looks like. However, I am not in favor of marketing that dehumanizes or shames a specific population into changing behavior.

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Do you think that more companies should put out advertisements like Subway and Nike or is there a better way to get the message out?

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Eliza: There are conscientious advertisers out there putting out positive ads aimed at inspiring others to be healthy. Nike recently put out an ad of a young man out for a run, Nathan. He was running slow and steady at his own pace and it was clear, to me, that he was taking steps in his journey towards a healthy lifestyle. The messaging from Nike was about anyone being able to get up and get those first steps in, that Nike gear (any sports gear for that matter) is not just for the elite athlete, the “skinny” girl, the “muscular” man. That anyone can achieve greatness. I was personally inspired by this ad and appreciated seeing a young man that looked similar to the youth I treat every day, out there just trying to do the best he can to be healthy.

There was some controversy around this ad, claiming that it was exploitation of an overweight teen. That Nike used him to boost sales. Also, that it looked like Nathan was miserable and breathing too heavily during his workout. Yes, he was breathing heavily, but in my view he was breathing heavy because he was working at a level that was difficult for him. I would argue that a number of people look somewhat miserable or “in pain” when they are working out hard. I don’t feel like his enjoyment of the workout had anything to do with the message in the ad. Also, don’t all advertisers use their subjects to boost sales? Why does no one get offended when the subject is a 25 year old female with 15% body fat, which, by the way, is representative of an EXTREMELY small percentage of our population? Is it because, as a society, she is considered more desirable to look at? Nathan, on the other hand, is representative of 25% of America’s population of teens, most of whom need to find some inspiration to get out there and get more exercise. But because we are not used to seeing Nathan on TV, not used to seeing overweight or obese individuals on TV, it becomes a topic of discussion and dispute. I argue that is what is wrong, not the ad, but that we would find the need to single it out and debate about it because he is overweight.

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Ads from conscientious marketers can be inspiring and can help cultivate change. Such ads would include things like an inspirational message, the story of a whole person (their face, their journey, their success), and something to give the intended audience hope. To me, the message here is that shaming is not an effective way to bring about change. We want to bring more awareness to the epidemic of obesity, but in a way that will effectively reach audiences without shame, ridicule or dehumanization.

 Eliza Kingsford, MA, LPC, is the Director of Clinical Services for Wellspring, America’s leading provider of weight-loss camps and residential treatment programs for overweight young people, families, and adults. For more information  visit http://wellspringweightloss.com/

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  • Anonymous , October 29, 2012

    The BCBS was a great one. We teach our children more by what we do than what we say. Just my opinion.

  • Cascia Talbert , October 29, 2012

    Anonymous, I agree with you. Parents need to lead by example. If we make unhealthy choices our kids are going to notice and believe it is alright to do the same thing. Thank you for visiting.

  • Oliver Leslie , October 30, 2012

    It is not just ads or fattening foods, but foods altogether that is the leading cause in so many of our health issues. Thin, skinny, lean folk can get a host of diseases that are related to diet – diabetes, heart disease, cancer, gastrointestianl matters etc all have something to do with the types of foods we eat or don't eat.
    Obeseity is a clear sign that there will be health complications down the line, but it is misleading to think that “low cal” means healthy.
    The ratio of ads that speak to obesity (agaisnt obesity) are far out-numbered by the ads for food and dining, including an entire channel or three dedicated to food, eating, cooking etc (one network whose slogan is “stay hungry”). Oliver

  • Cascia Talbert , October 31, 2012

    Oliver, you made some very interesting points and I agree with you. Our culture in the US embraces convenience. Americans are too busy to really pay attention to what they are eating. Our kids are bombarded with ads on TV for sugary cereals and snacks loaded with what I call, “junk.”
    I agree that if a package is labeled “low-cal”, “low-fat” or diet it still is not the best thing for you. Thank you so much for visiting and participating in the conversation here at The Healthy Moms Magazine.

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